Jonathan Safran Foer's recent polemic Eating Animals makes much of the contrast between our love for our pets and our complacency at the horrors of the factory farm and the abattoir. That contradiction is no more keenly felt than by the vegetarian dog or cat owner, supporting the meat industry they abhor every time they stock up on pet food.
Of course, I should say the vegetarian owner of a cat or dog. Even my preternaturally clever Border collie, Charlie – a dog perfectly capable of expressing disdain – doesn't have the intelligence to base his culinary choices on a critique of the industrialised system of meat production. So is it ethical to impose a vegetarian diet on your pet? And for a start, is it healthy?
The health issue is simpler for dogs than cats, as dogs in the wild are omnivores whereas cats are obligate 'true' carnivores, getting all of their nutrition from meat.
But cats require specific nutrients, not specific foodstuffs. A 2006 study (pdf), carried out somewhat bizarrely by Nestlé, found that the 34 vegetarian cats it examined were healthy. One of the biggest concerns for cats is the risk of taurine deficiency, which can lead to blindness and death if not treated. Most meaty cat food has taurine added back, because the processing of meats removes it. Another essential for cats is arachidonic acid. Both these substances are available as supplements.
There are commercially available veggie options. Ethical Consumer's recent pet food report (pdf) gave 'best buys' for vegetarian dog food to brands Ami, Benevo, Yarrah and Wackidog and for vegetarian cat food, to Ami and Benevo (both of which contain taurine and arachidonic acid). Yarrah, which is organic, is currently investigating bringing out a vegan cat food too.
But even among animal rights organisations the jury is still out on the health implications feeding cats a veggie diet. Some, such as the Vegetarian Society, are equivocal, while others are keen backers of such a switch. A sensible compromise might be to feed your cat half vegetarian biscuits and half organic wet meaty food. Even dogs may struggle to get the nutrients they need from commercial vegetarian pet food. Some dogs require extra taurine and L-Carnitine, not usually added to commercial dog food (Ami dog food contains L-Carnitine).
No doubt this talk of a vegetarian dog will have many people apoplectic with righteous indignation that it's "not natural". They'd do well to consider whether there was anything "natural" about conventional pet food.
Pet food is not covered by the same labelling requirements as food for humans. "EC permitted additives" covers a multitude of sins, including 4,000 chemicals and artificial colours banned for human consumption. "Meat and animal derivatives" can cover anything scraped off the slaughterhouse floor, while "derivatives of vegetable origin" is so broad as to include charcoal.
The Campaign for Real Pet Food is calling for a change in the labelling legislation – particularly important for pet owners with allergies. And just as there are concerns around the impact on human health of Bisphenol A (BPA) in can coatings and plastics, there's evidence that BPA in canned cat food may harm feline health.
It may also come as a nasty surprise to pet owners that many pet food companies have been involved in invasive tests on animals. Another advantage of the above veggie brands is that they are either on PETA UK's non-animal tested list or, in the case of Wackidog, approved by anti animal-testing campaigners BUAV.
Beyond animal rights, there's another motivation to reduce your pets' meat intake – the wider environmental impact. Last year saw a flurry of headlines following a book which claimed that owning a dog could have twice the environmental impact of driving an SUV. But pets are not the problem – a meat diet is.Today, greenhouse gases from livestock outweigh those from the entire global transport system.
If you do consider giving your dog or cat a veggie, or even vegan, diet, do your homework first – and consult a vet if you have any concerns about your pet's health.
Dan Welch is co-editor of Ethical Consumer magazine. Katy Brown is the author of Ethical Consumer's recent buyers' guide to pet food.
Source: The Guardian